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Beyond earth’s boundaries: a journey of innovation and leadership 

20 November 2023 • by Susmita Mohanty in Innovation

Spaceship designer, serial entrepreneur, and space diplomat Susmita Mohanty has a unique vantage point on the world, having worked for space agencies and mega-corporations and co-founded three start-ups. Here she shares her...

Spaceship designer, serial entrepreneur, and space diplomat Susmita Mohanty has a unique vantage point on the world, having worked for space agencies and mega-corporations and co-founded three startups. Here she shares her insights on how companies can leverage space assets to chart a more sustainable future 

In a world of growing geopolitical tension, leaders need to not just focus on the bottom line, they need to think about how their business decisions can make the world safer, more habitable, and prosperous. You can’t get this from sitting in the boardroom – you need to get a perspective because sometimes we forget we are all living on the same planet.  

As business leaders, taking the time to journey to outer space in your imagination, to think beyond your specific company, country, and continent, can provide that perspective. I encourage all leaders to look at their companies from 400km above the earth.  

During 2022, the overall global space economy generated revenue of $384 billion, made up largely of ground equipment, satellite services, and the non-satellite industry, which includes government space budgets and commercial human spaceflight. What makes this century exciting is that earth observation data can be combined with advances in machine learning and analytics to build sophisticated models to derive actionable intelligence for diverse use cases. 

I was raised amongst the pioneers of the Indian space program, which happens to be one of the oldest space programs in the world. India’s first experimental rocket launch happened in 1963. I was born a year before the last Apollo landing, which happened in December 1972. I began my professional space journey in 1998; since then, I have consulted to space agencies, universities, industry associations, investment firms, institutions, and companies all over the world.  

Throughout my career, I have had to navigate cultural diversity in negotiations, manage complex international collaborations, and foster entrepreneurial mindsets. This extensive experience across continents and disciplines has given me a vantage point that I believe business leaders need now more than ever if we want to overcome the global challenges we face, from geopolitical tensions to the climate crisis. 

Studio shot of LEGO minifigure astronuats with computer, science equipment, and rover. Nasa Lego futuristic design

For example, via the startup I co-founded, EARTH2ORBIT, I played a pivotal role in enabling the first-ever launch agreement between the American satellite constellation company Skybox and Antrix, the Indian space agency’s commercial arm – despite seemingly unsurmountable legal and export control hurdles. This half-a-decade ‘technology diplomacy’ saga paved the way for many more American satellites to be launched onboard the Indian PSLV rocket. 

Space is not just about technology 

It’s important to remember that space is not just about technology. It’s also about business, social impact, and geopolitics. Most importantly, it’s about perspective. I encourage you to think about how to use space assets to create an impact in your industry, whether it’s telecommunications, healthcare, oil and gas, meteorology, or urban planning. Ask yourself how you can leverage space assets to not only improve your bottom line but also to conduct your business in a more sustainable way.  

Space tech no longer works in isolation. In the last couple of decades, it has started to cross-pollinate with info-tech, nano-tech, clean tech, ag-tech, and others making it more impactful. Earlier in this millennium, we started talking about a low earth orbit (LEO) economy. It has taken 20 years for this economy to start to happen. It has now started to become reality with companies offering LEO-related services such as Space Situation Awareness (SSA), dodging space debris, and deorbiting dead satellites.   

The nature of how we run space stations and use space has changed dramatically. LEO space stations will turn into real estate businesses. In the near future, we shall likely see the likes of Blue Origin build a future orbital outpost with NASA (and others) as its tenant. Private constellations such as Starlink, OneWeb, and Project Kupier are starting to play a much bigger role, not only in terms of building, launching, and operating satellites but also starting to control what we consider the “cosmic commons”.  

I encourage all leaders to look at their companies from 400km above the earth.

This brings with it new challenges. Space pollution, for one, is becoming a major problem. We have approximately 130 million man-made space debris objects orbiting the earth, all moving at enormous speed, and we urgently need to find solutions to deal with this.  

We need to use space missions to not only generate new businesses but also to keep track of how humanity is going off course due to the hubris of tech prophets. I want to encourage business leaders to cut through the hype and embrace technology for the specific purpose of achieving strategic objectives.  

An excellent example of this is NISAR, the world’s most sophisticated radar satellite, which is due to be launched in 2024. A collaboration between the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) and NASA, this will help us understand the effects and pace of climate change. Satellite imagery, combined with other forms of ancillary data and machine learning analytics, can be used for crop forecasting, disaster warning and management, resource prospecting, and city planning.  

What have I learned from 25 years in the space industry?  

I mentor a number of startups, and this is what I tell them: 

1. Get into the belly of the beast​

This is a complex industry, and you have to know how it works if you want to navigate the regulatory hurdles, find clients, find funding, and know what to pitch to investors.

2. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul

I have started three companies on three continents. It takes us a good six or seven years to say, “We have arrived.” It’s tough to bid, to raise funds, to design, to prototype, to run simulations, to test, to fly.

3. Have a sense of purpose​

It’s good to have a shared sense of purpose because we have only one planet that we call our home. Use micro goals as a steppingstone to macro goals.

4. Find the right team

As an entrepreneur, you need to be a casting director. The space agencies typically hire mostly engineers and use an engineering-centric approach. This worked in the sixties and seventies but today we need a multi-disciplinary approach to design to succeed.

5. Intelligence comes in many forms

In the space industry, there is bureaucracy everywhere and you must find antidotes to it to make your company work. Being knowledgeable about the tech is not enough; you need to understand the regulatory landscape and how to navigate red tape.

6. Change is never linear, it is always complex

Remember ambiguity is a good thing. It helps you recalibrate, reset and move forward. Don’t try to oversimplify things. Deal with complexity in cool, creative ways.

This article is inspired by a keynote session at IMD’s Orchestrating Winning Performance in Singapore, which brings together executives from diverse sectors and geographies for a week of intense learning and sharing with IMD faculty and business experts. 


Susmita Mohanty

Susmita Mohanty

Director General of Spaceport SARABHA

Susmita Mohanty is Director General of Spaceport SARABHAI (S2), India’s first and only ‘space’ think-tank which she co-founded in 2021. S2’s mission is to present and strengthen India’s voice, both public and private, as a space power worldwide. As a space entrepreneur, Mohanty has co-founded companies on three different continents: EARTH2ORBIT (Bangalore), LIQUIFER Systems Group (Vienna) and MOONFRONT (San Francisco). Prior to becoming an entrepreneur, Mohanty worked on Shuttle-Mir missions at NASA Johnson in Houston and later for the International Space Station Program at Boeing in Huntington Beach. Mohanty is a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Future Council for Space Technologies and a non-resident scholar at Carnegie India.  


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